Racial Equity: The History and Purpose of our Work

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

My first year at Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) was 2009. When I travelled the country to meet members and learn about their work, I was surprised by my conversations with most private funders.

These funders said their work differed from their peers because they were focused on small organizations; African, Latino(a), Asian, and Native American (ALANA) organizations; issues of equity; and the changing demographics in their communities. Everyone assumed that GIA’s core membership primarily supported large professional arts institutions and those that were funding beyond that were isolated cases. It seemed everyone I talked with was “different.” This made me realize there was a growing trend in arts philanthropy not being openly discussed. Most funders viewed their peers from an historical perspective. Instead, I could see a collective movement in process - and a need for the coordination of shared best practices and experiences.

Around the same time, social justice funders within GIA were creating a standard of operations for themselves. At the Taos conference in 2007, Claudine Brown, then at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, organized sessions: Arts & Social Change Work Group Part 1 and Part 2. In 2008 in Atlanta, the group had its first preconference; there has been an equity or social change preconference every year for the past six years. The 2011 and 2012 main conference themes focused on equity and saw increases in submissions for sessions on issues of equity and community building through the arts.

In 2011, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) published its report in partnership with GIA on arts funding written by Holly Sidford, a well-known and respected arts philanthropy consultant. The report, which received great traction, called for greater equity in funding for small organizations and groups defined by NCRP as “marginalized communities.” In 2012, GIA created a “community of learning” group consisting of funders and thought leaders who had experience in social justice funding to explore successes and challenges in grantmaking. This group chose to focus on racial equity in order to better define GIA’s general equity work and because they believed racism was the root core of many inequities.

The GIA board of directors agreed with this focus and in 2013, the board of directors and staff underwent anti-racism training led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Our conferences, publications, web conferences, and website news feed have, since 2008, systemically included information and resources on racial equity. And yet we know that we are just beginning this work for the field.

GIA’s work is inspired by this field-wide search for equitable or just funding, informed by the knowledge of GIA board members and social justice funders who have long worked in this area. There is a need at this moment to go beyond the kinds of conversations we’ve had in the past. The recommended solutions of the past have not dealt with systemic issues or resulted in nationwide successful outcomes in the areas of diversity and reaching ALANA artists and audiences. Our attempts to require board diversification, education programs for underserved children, and community outreach have been largely unsuccessful in changing the composition of audience members attending traditionally white-serving nonprofit arts events. We have also not been broadly successful in supporting the arts and arts groups from and for ALANA communities.

Our racial equity work fits the definition of “core” fieldwork. It is our role to assist our members in understanding concepts and practices that they can adapt to their own specific situations. I see our work in education, nonprofit financial health, and understanding structural racism as providing fundamental information and cohesion to a field that is attempting to seek collective impact on issues that have been systemically problematic. We want grantmakers to make change in communities in need of tools that will better inform their decisions and practice. Understanding how systems are influenced by a structure that maintains status quo and rejects change can help us devise solutions that will finally break those barriers. GIA’s work with understanding power and structural racism in America is vital to creating new practices and solutions as our members fund more ALANA organizations, immigrant communities, long standing ALANA communities, and a growing number of non-white art forms and audiences. This is our commitment, and we are inspired to integrate it into all of our programming areas from education and capitalization to cross-sector work in health, aging, and other sectors. More to come.